NEW DELHI: Flowers and condolence cards continue to fill up a small apartment near Kolkata, home to the city’s most popular cabaret dancer who died this week.
Aarti Das, fondly called the “Queen of Cabaret”, died on 6 February 2020, around the time the family of Bob Marley announced plans to celebrate the 75th birthday of the late Jamaican-born reggae legend.
Das, popular as Miss Shefali, started her career with the city’s singing sensation Usha Uthup in the mid-1960s at some of the city’s popular bars. She and Uthup were star attractions of the city’s nightlife, loved and liked by film stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna and Tollywood superstar Uttam Kumar. “I have lost my voice, we started our careers together, she was such a wonderful dancer,” Uthup said in a brief telephonic interview. “She was known only as a cabaret dancer, never called an actress, though she acted in movies where Uttam Kumar played the lead role and in movies directed by Satyajit Ray. She lived her life, she was a very positive woman. Laughter was her constant companion.”
Shefali was laced with love and lust, wooed by the rich and famous. But it was only for a one night stand. “I could never be anyone’s wife,” Shefali once wrote in her biography, which was published some years ago in Bengali.
She emerged in Kolkata’s cocktail circuit around a time when sex was a taboo in the city, Bengali movies were shot in black and white films and only the glamour world and film stars backed cabarets. The evening and late night shows at the city’s popular bars at Firpo’s, Trincas, Blue Fox and The Oberoi Grand hotel were dominated by the Anglo-Indian fraternity, who lived close to Park Street, Kolkata’s only boulevard.
And Shefali dazzled with her dances, often sitting on the laps of the guests, only to leave in the next second because the wives never liked her.
But she was attractive and ran around the imposing Victoria Memorial every morning to remain fit. Her lovers called her the “Queen of the Nights”. But that was in private, in public very few openly interacted with Shefali.
She walked into a 1970 Ray film, Pratidwandi, which translates into The Competitor, without a screen test. The movie revolved around a jobless graduate, whose financial constraints caused him to hallucinate about success. She portrayed the role of a nurse who was also a part-time sex worker. Ray was very keen to include her in the movie, Shefali was equally confident when she walked into the camera wearing a bra. Her confidence even rattled the protagonist of the movie, seasoned actor Dhritiman Chatterjee.
She was a cabaret dancer, “Koni the Woman”, in the Uttam Kumar led Chowringhee, which was based on the life and times of a five-star hotel in the city. It was her first role in a movie and Uttam Kumar was immensely impressed; he even proposed to marry her after one of her shows at a club. The next morning, however, had a different story.
Shefali made her name when the world was without Facebook and Twitter. No one WhatsApped her images. Many would secretly visit the city’s photographers to take prints and get her to kiss it so that the red mark stayed. Many would also sign it and return it to her, calling those moments “what a beautiful world”.
But barring one, no one stayed back. He was an American, named Robin, who was tall and handsome who wanted to marry Shefali and leave for Washington. But Shefali refused. She knew her family needed her cash. She told many in Kolkata that only Robin offered true love, unlimited romance. Yet, Shefali, who often felt sad at being dubbed as a sex symbol, was a woman of confidence. She was a change agent in a city, which was slowly emerging out of the tumultuous Naxalite days. She was bold and beautiful, there were stories in newspapers how she slapped some of the rich and famous who wanted to get close for a night. She would often tell her friends how she thought she was a fairy, the one who is perched on the top of Victoria Memorial, a large marble building built in 1921 in the memory of Queen Victoria.
Shefali, who travelled to India from East Pakistan and worked as a maid at the residence of an Anglo-Indian family, knew cash was king. Besides her dancing sessions at the bars and occasional movie roles, she also tried her hand at theatre and worked well with some of the top directors. Famous theatre halls like Sarkarina, Biswarupa could get packed houses only because the crowds wanted Shefali. This was the crowd that could not afford a drink at the Oberoi or Firpo’s, but managed to buy a ticket for the theatre. After Firpo’s, Shefali reigned the Oberoi Grand for 17 years. Every anecdote, every relationship, every bend is perhaps worth the mention. Why not? Shefali, who rocked the cabaret space of Kolkata’s nightscape, routinely set the bar-room and much else on fire.
She once told a reporter how she got into dancing. She was groomed by one Vivien Hansen, who sang at Mocambo restaurant on Park Street. Vivien took Shefali to Firpo’s on Park Street, the poshest restaurant of the times. She was hired for Rs 700 a month. She thought it was a fortune. She stumbled and could not dance with high heels and saree. Vivian took her to the Lalbazar Building, headquarters to the city’s police, where Shefali told a young officer why she needed the job of a cabaret dancer. The officer was livid. Eventually, she managed a licence for three months. It was around the time when most European dancers were leaving India and the space was opening up for local women. Shefali was in business. She learnt various dance forms such as the Charleston, Can-Can, Twist, Hawaiian Hula and Belly Dancing.
And once she was out of it and age caught up, Shefali was a virtual nobody. She often lamented how she was routinely ignored as a panelist by television channels producing dance shows. Eventually, she settled down on the outskirts of Kolkata with her maid, Durga.
The day she died, 6 February 2020, veteran actress and former MP Monmoon Sen asked everyone in the city to contribute to a welfare fund for poor artists. People responded with flowers, not cash.